MIT is designing a simple paper test to help detect the Ebola virus

Lee Gehrke's lab at MIT is designing a cheap, fast detector for Ebola and other deadly viruses. (Photo: Anthony Griffiths)
Lee Gehrke's lab at MIT is designing a cheap, fast detector for Ebola and other deadly viruses. (Photo: Anthony Griffiths)

MIT professor Lee Gehrke wants detecting the Ebola virus to be fast and easy. His lab is creating a $3 device that screens for the condition by sopping up a drop of blood from a finger prick and analyzing it in under 20 minutes. 

The blood is absorbed by a small piece of paper that works a bit like a filter, with hair-thin laser-etched channels directing the flow of the cells and proteins in the drop of blood.

“It’s definitely not newsprint,” said Gehrke, who has joint appointments at Harvard Medical School and MIT. “This is a commonly used paper in scientific applications.”

Researchers at Gehrke’s lab at MIT have been studying RNA viruses — Ebola among them — for several years, and had been working on this diagnostic tool for at least two years before this year’s outbreak.

His goal is to have a cheap, disposable front-line detector for this disease that many people can get their hands on — and fast. If Ebola or another disease was found, the paper would change color, like the plus symbol on an at-home pregnancy test. He says that like pregnancy tests, the device could ideally be used both by medical professionals and untrained individuals.

A paper-based detector, which has the advantage of speed and disposability, is not a totally new concept. Cambridge-based Diagnostics For All is already field-testing a variety of single-use tests for human and animal diseases, and MIT professor Sangeetha Bhatia (with whom Gehrke is collaborating) has customized a paper-based urine test for cancer. To Gehrke’s knowledge, such a test does not exist for Ebola.

Gehrke’s goal is to build supporting infrastructure so that devices can be locally modified for a condition as needed. He hopes that local clinics or shops could stock these cheap tests for the Marburg virus, or the flu.

The device has showed promise in tests with Ebola viral proteins manufactured in the lab. Gehrke has partnered with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio to test the devices using Ebola-infected serum from animals.

Gehrke wants to pair the device with a companion phone app that will allow users to log the results of their photos — he imagines this could help health officials monitor the breaking wave of a disease, and better target recovery efforts. “It’s real boots on the ground kind of data that is quantifiable, verifiable, that can show where the disease is.”

Gehrke’s idea is not dissimilar to projects like GoViral, the Harvard-based group that is inviting residents of New England to send in saliva and a cheek swab when they fall ill this season, as a way to get a bird’s-eye view of local outbreaks. (GoViral gets additional data, and participants get a free analysis of the bug infecting them.)

While applying for funding to trial the devices in the field, Gehrke’s group will turn their attention to testing that the device can reliably spot the right indicators of a disease while avoiding false positives.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at
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